The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"A sense of curiosity is nature's original school of education."....  ...Dr. Smiley Blanton

Commentary of the Day - February 22, 2006:  The Best High School Education That $25,000 per Year Can Buy.

Lest you think that it no longer possible to obtain a high quality education in an American high school, rest assured that this is not the case -- provided, of course, that money is no object.

The IP was a bit taken aback to read Carla Rivera's recent story in The Los Angeles Times detailing the tuition increases that parents who send their children to some of the City of the Angels' most exclusive private secondary schools will soon have to absorb.  Come next year tuition at the Marlborough School for Girls will exceed $25,000 per year; and, tuition at other elite private high schools in the area will range from $21,554 to $24,800.  These rates are similar to tuition costs at elite private high schools in some other parts of the country.  For example, the average tuition for elite private high schools is $24,167 in Washington, DC, $24,940 in San Francisco, and $27,200 in New York City.  Tuition rates for these elite schools have almost doubled in the past ten years.

However, not all private schools in southern California are expensive as Marlborough.  In neighboring Orange County tuition at the well-regarded Fairmont Schools will come in at under $15,000 next year.  Part of the difference may reflect perceptions about the quality of the public schools in the major urban areas where the tuition costs for the more elite private high schools has climbed into the stratosphere (and, in fact, approaches the tuition costs for the Ivy League colleges.)  The public school systems in Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco, and New York all have their problems, even though there are individual public schools in these cities that are well regarded.  This may be fueling the demand for private school slots in those cities.  On the other hand, the public schools in Orange County with a few exceptions, are perceived to have fewer problems than those in Los Angeles County, so the competition for private school admission in Orange County may not be so intense.

In spite of the astronomical price tags, the elite private schools receive more than enough admissions pressure to be highly selective.  For example, the Marlborough School admits about 80 students each year and receives approximately four applications for each opening.  Clearly, well-heeled parents are willing to shell out big bucks to avoid the hassles involved in getting their offspring into the better public schools in the area.  What do they get in return?  Well, as you might expect, these elite private schools pride themselves on the quality of their faculty members, and the individual attention that they are able to lavish on their students.  The student to faculty ratio at The Marlborough School, for example, is 9 to 1 and the average class size is 14.  Most faculty members at these schools have earned at least a master's degree, and many hold Ph.D.'s.  Class sizes are small, laboratories are very well equipped, and there is plenty of individual help available to any student who may need it.

Somewhat surprisingly, the folks who operate these high-tuition schools complain that they are barely able to cover the costs of educating their students.  There are two reasons for these pleas of "poverty".  First, they pay their teachers far higher salaries than those of the average public school teacher.  According to Rivera's Times article the median salary for a private school teacher in Los Angeles is about $54,000, while the top teachers earn close to $80,000 not including benefits.  Second, these private schools often award fairly large amounts of financial aid to students whose parents could never afford to send them to private schools of this caliber.  At Marlborough some 14% of the students are on financial aid, and the average grant amounts to about $16,000.  This largesse helps to ensure that there is a modicum of ethnic diversity within the school, though not nearly the level of ethnic diversity found in the Los Angeles public schools.

Given the amount of money that a school like Marlborough spends to educate its students and the amount of individual attention that they receive, it's tempting to ask how well they do in comparison to public school students.  Unfortunately, it is not possible to compare the Marlborough students to a similar cohort of public school students directly.  Clearly though, Marlborough students do well.  They typically score on average in the top 2% on the PSAT, and each year several Marlborough students achieve National Merit Scholarship finalist status.  It is no surprise that these students, and students from private schools in general, are more likely to go on to a four-year college and are more likely to stay in college for at least two years.  What is surprising is that  in spite of the individual attention and rigorous preparation that students from private secondary schools in general receive, after one or two years of college they perform at no higher levels than their public school counterparts according to national studies.

Critics often argue that it is a waste of taxpayer money to attempt to reduce class size or increase teachers' salaries in the public schools.  That these factors have little effect on the quality of education that students receive.  Clearly, the parents who send their children to schools like Marlborough think that high teacher salaries and small class size contribute to a good education.  But it may well be that these are not the most important factors.  The students who graduate from the much less expensive parochial schools where teacher salaries are relatively modest and class size is comparable to the public schools also seem to be more likely to go on to college or university than their public school counterparts, and they also tend to make the transition to college better than the public school graduates.

Both the elite private schools and the much less elite parochial schools share some characteristics.  Both offer fairly rigorous, traditional curricula although the elite private schools probably offer more advanced placement classes.  And, both have the power to select their students, so they don't have to expend resources on students who might have significant learning disabilities or who present major disciplinary problems.  This may have more to do with the success of a school than anything else.

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© 2006 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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